Freelance writers are jugglers. We have any number of things happening at any given time. And because of that, things can slip through the cracks and our productivity can take a hit. That includes keeping on top of sources of information that we use for research or for potential ideas.
While I think the idea of information overload is a load of bunk, I do know that it can be tough to keep up with the information you need, even if you’re limiting the amount that you’re taking in. That’s why I try to automate as many tasks as I can, including gathering information. It allows me to focus on my work a bit more and makes me just that much more productive. To paraphrase what someone said in a presentation I attended a few years ago, I’m letting the tools do the work.
One tool that does a lot of work for me is IFTTT (short for If This Then That). While it took me a little while to figure out what IFTTT could do for me, I’ve found it to be an invaluable addition to my tool kit.
Let’s take a look at it.
A little bit about IFTTT
People describe IFTTT as glue that binds various web applications and services together. I don’t see it quite like that. I view IFTTT as more of a thread that can run through services to help them work together.
Each recipe is made up of a set of triggers and actions. Triggers are the events that tell IFTTT it needs to do something. Actions tell IFTTT what to do. Think about the example in the last paragraph. The trigger would be a new item being posted to an RSS feed.
From there, the action would be to save the item as a new note in Evernote.
It’s that sequence of triggers and actions that give the service its name — if something is triggered, then the service carries out an action.
There’s a bit more to it than that, but not much. Creating a recipe involves around seven steps. You have to fill in a few details, but that’s about it. And the triggers and actions can be quite flexible. Going back to the RSS feed example, you can also create a note in Evernote if a new item in the RSS feed contains a certain word.
There are 45 web services that can be used for triggers and actions. These include posts to blogging services (like WordPress, Blogger, Posterous, and Tumblr), email, posts to photo sites (like Flickr or Instagram), or new posts to an RSS feed or to a microblogging site like App.net. IFTTT used to have several triggers and actions for Twitter, but those were removed at the end of September, 2012 due to changes to the way Twitter allows third-party applications to interact with the service. You can find a full list of triggers and actions here.
What you can do with IFTTT
A lot. In fact, what you can do with IFTTT is only limited by the triggers and actions and your imagination. Here are a few ways that I use IFTTT:
- Save my updates to App.net (a microblogging service) to Dropbox
- Create a new document in Google Drive whenever I add one to Typerighter.com
- Update most of my social media accounts when I publish a new blog post
- Save URLs shortened using bit.ly to a spreadsheet in Google Drive
Recipes only take a couple of minutes to create. There are thousands of recipes that other IFTTT users have created and have freely shared. If you can’t come up with one of your own, you can dip into that reservoir and use what’s there.
What IFTTT could mean to you
Once you’ve set up a recipe, IFTTT does all the work for you. That’s the automation that I mentioned earlier.
IFTTT is fire and forget. Or, at least, fire and leave alone. It does the work for you. If, say, you usually comb through an RSS reader for information or ideas for articles or blog posts, you can set up one or more IFTTT recipes to scan for keywords in articles and then save them to Evernote or Instapaper or Pocket. Then, all you need to do is skim those saved articles at the end of the day.
You can become more productive using IFTTT. It doesn’t help you write, but lets you focus on your writing. IFTTT does all the heavy lifting and searching for you. When its done, you can turn your eye to results and dig out the information and ideas that you need. Or, you can automatically back up your information online. Those are tasks that can bite into the time you have available during a day or week. And, as I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, it only takes a couple of minutes to create a recipe. Or, you can use or modify existing recipes.
The time you spend setting up the recipes will be paid back many times over. You’ll be able to get more done, and have more time to devote to your writing.